Ethie Lee, the first student to register
at Texas State, was an education pioneer
Today marks 107th anniversary of opening of university.
Amid the dignitaries gathered on the hill overlooking San Marcos, among the 300 or so future students from virtually every corner of Texas, inside the freshly completed Main Building, Ethie Lee was in line the morning of Sept. 9, 1903.
The young woman from Knox County had a single ambition: Learn how to be a better teacher at the Southwest Texas State Normal School, which opened its doors for the first time at 9 a.m. that day.
At 22, she was older than most of the so-called Normalites who made up the first class of the institution that would evolve into Texas State University-San Marcos. Some of her classmates were as young as 16, but she already had been a teacher for two years in her hometown of Munday.
Ethie Lee was committed to San Marcos for a year; that was the length of the teacher education program when the school colloquially referred to as “the Normal” opened. Others in that initial class of 301 were there to finish two years of high school, then take the education portion of the curriculum, the one that would qualify them to become schoolteachers in Texas.
And her commitment was strong. When T.G. Harris, the institution’s principal, opened the school’s “pledge book” to the future students, she was first in line and signed her name at the top of the first page.
It wouldn’t be her last accomplishment of note.
Gov. Sayers’ Influence
Southwest Texas Normal was the fourth public teacher-education school opened in Texas, after institutions in Denton, Huntsville and Prairie View. It had been the vision of Gov. Joseph D. Sayers, a native of Central Texas who worked to expand educational opportunities while in office from 1899-1903.
Sayers — whose sister, Jessie, was a veteran teacher and a member of the Normal’s first faculty — was referred to in news reports from that September morning as the “father of this school.” He had been at the ceremonial placement of the cornerstone of the Main Building almost 18 months earlier, and his desire to bring teacher education to the region had spurred the Texas Legislature into action during his first year in office.
He was introduced to the gathering on the hill, which was estimated at 500 people, “among whom are people of State and National reputation,” by Judge J.D. Wood. Wood was the president of the school’s local board of trustees.
“Gov. Sayers’ speech was an eloquent one,” the Dallas Morning News reported. The former governor was followed by several more speakers, including Fergus Kyle, the area’s state representative and one of the school’s bigger supporters in the legislature.
Once the dignitaries had dispersed, the business of education took over with the start of the first of four 12-week terms. Classes, in disciplines from history and civics to botany and zoology, met Monday through Saturday mornings.
A number of students were attending the Normal on state-sponsored scholarships, which paid tuition that could total no more than $450 for the academic year. Ethie was not on any of the published lists of scholarship recipients, but since she already had been working, and her father, James T. Lee, was the only physician in Knox County, she probably didn’t need financial aid as much as some of her fellow students.
It didn’t take long for campus organizations to form. Ethie was one of the early presidents of the Comenian Society, a group that studied art and the child in literature, and she sang alto in the Mendelssohn Choir. That first year also saw the launch of the Pedagog, the school’s yearbook. Each of the 32 students who finished in the spring of 1904 was memorialized with a quote in the Pedagog; hers was “Free to trust. Trustful and almost sternly just.”
Each of those graduates was required to teach in Texas for at least as long as his or her formal schooling at the Normal. Ethie returned to her job in Munday, where she resumed her role on a three-member faculty.
Short Time in Classroom
But Ethie Lee’s teaching career didn’t last long. She met a man named Robert P’Pool, a widower with two sons who lived in the nearby town of Anson, not long after returning to Knox County. They were married in 1906, which meant an end to her career — female teachers at that time were expected to be unmarried, since they wound up devoting so much time to small schools, which sometimes met for less than half the year.
The couple moved to Anson after the wedding and had a child, Roberta, in 1907. By all accounts, Ethie settled into the role of a homemaker, raising the three children. But that normality didn’t last long, either; Robert P’Pool died in 1915 at the age of 41.
There are no records to indicate if Ethie went back to work, although she did return to Knox County, where her sister Shelley — also a Southwest Texas Normal graduate — was a teacher. She settled in the county seat of Benjamin.
A New Role
In 1887, the legislature had given counties the authority to set up an office of superintendent of schools, and in 1907 it became a requirement for a county with more than 3,000 students to have a superintendent.
The education official was elected by the public to two-year terms and served a variety of roles: secretary and executive officer for the county school board, organizer of continuing education institutes for the county’s teachers, supervisor of the smaller districts, accountant for school funds and distributor of textbooks.
In 1927, just three years after Miriam “Ma” Ferguson became the first woman elected to a major office in Texas, Ethie Lee ran for superintendent in Knox County and won. She was the only woman on the ballot listed in the Munday Times, the county’s largest newspaper.
She must have been well-suited for the job — she was re-elected four times.
In her first term, she brought the state superintendent of schools, S.M.N. Marrs, to speak to local residents about his support of rural schools. In 1931, rather than find outsiders to speak to the summer education institute, she commissioned some of the county’s school leaders to present reports, which were published in the Munday Times. She also wrote school news for the newspaper, including reports on graduations.
In 1928, she was invited to speak at the Southwest Texas Ex-Students Association banquet, which was held in conjunction with the state teachers’ convention at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio.
“Mrs. Ethie Lee Pool (sic) of Knox City, Texas, in the first speech of the evening, told of some of her experiences during the first year of the ‘Normal’,” the university newspaper, the College Star, reported on Dec. 4, 1928. “She holds the distinction of being the first student to register in the first session of the College. Very pleasing and interesting was her speech.”
In 1930 she was one of the main sources for a master’s thesis on the educational history of Knox County — both as one of the original teachers, in 1901, and as the superintendent.
She returned to a private life in 1935 when she stepped down as Knox County superintendent. She was mentioned again, albeit only occasionally, for the next 20 years in the society pages of the Munday and Abilene newspapers.
The final reports on Texas State’s first student came in 1956. She died on Feb. 2 of that year in Amarillo, near the Panhandle town of Hereford where she lived with her daughter. Of the obituaries that appeared in the days after her death, only one referred to her history as an “early-day Munday school teacher” and noted that she has been superintendent in Knox County. None mentioned her status as the first student at Texas State.
But her name is forever inked in that pledge book from Sept. 9, 1903.